In January, the China National Space Administration landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, the side we can’t see from Earth. Chang’e-4 was named for a goddess in Chinese mythology, who lives on the moon for reasons connected to her husband’s problematic immortality drink. The story has ...
In January, the China National Space Administration landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon, the side we can’t see from Earth. Chang’e-4 was named for a goddess in Chinese mythology, who lives on the moon for reasons connected to her husband’s problematic immortality drink. The story has many versions. In one, Chang’e has been banished to the moon for elixir theft and turned into an ugly toad. In another, she has saved humanity from a tyrannical emperor by stealing the drink. In many versions, she is a luminous beauty and has as a companion a pure-white rabbit.
Chang’e-4 is the first vehicle to alight on the far side of the moon. From that side, the moon blocks radio communication with Earth, which makes landing difficult, and the surface there is craggy and rough, with a mountain taller than anything on Earth. Older geologies are exposed, from which billions of years of history can be deduced. Chang’e-4 landed in a nearly four-mile-deep hole that was formed when an ancient meteor crashed into the moon—one of the largest known impact craters in our solar system.
You may have watched the near-operatic progress of Chang’e-4’s graceful landing. Or the uncannily cute robotic amblings of the lander’s companion, the Yutu-2 rover, named for the moon goddess’s white rabbit. You may have read that, aboard the lander, seeds germinated (cotton, rapeseed, and potato; the Chinese are also trying to grow a flowering plant known as mouse-ear cress), and that the rover survived the fourteen-day lunar night, when temperatures drop to negative two hundred and seventy degrees Fahrenheit. Chang’e-4 is a step in China’s long-term plan to build a base on the moon, a goal toward which the country has rapidly been advancing since it first orbited the moon, in 2007.
If you missed the Chinese mission, maybe it’s because you were focussed on the remarkably inexpensive spacecraft from SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit organization, which crash-landed into the moon on April 11th, soon after taking a selfie while hovering above the lunar surface. The crash was not the original plan, and SpaceIL has already announced its intention of going to the moon again. But maybe you weren’t paying attention to SpaceIL, either, because you were anticipating India’s Chandrayaan-2 moon lander, expected to take off later this year. Or you were waiting for Japan’s first lunar-lander-and-rover mission, scheduled to take place next year. Perhaps you’ve been distracted by the announcement, in January, on the night of the super blood wolf moon, that the European Space Agency plans to mine lunar ice by 2025. Or by Vice-President Mike Pence’s statement, in March, that the United States intends “to return American astronauts to the moon within the next five years.”
Fifty years ago, three men journeyed from a small Florida peninsula to a dry crater some two hundred and forty thousand miles away called the Sea of Tranquillity. Hundreds of millions of people watched on black-and-white TVs as a man from Wapakoneta, Ohio, climbed slowly down a short ladder and reported in a steady voice that his footprint had depressed the soil only a fraction of an inch, that “the surface appears to be very fine-grained as you get close to it, it’s almost like a powder down there, it’s very fine.”
Shortly before nasa launched Apollo 11, it received a letter from the Union of Persian Storytellers, begging nasa to change the plan: a moon landing would rob the world of its illusions, and rob the union’s members of their livelihood. During the spacecraft’s flight, the Mission Control Center, in Houston, asked the crew to look out for Chang’e, and for her bunny, too. Houston said that the bunny would be “easy to spot, since he is always standing on his hind feet in the shade of a cinnamon tree.” Buzz Aldrin responded, “We’ll keep a close eye out for the bunny girl.”
“The moon is hot again,” Jack Burns, the director of the nasa-funded Network for Exploration and Space Science, told me. ness’s headquarters are at the University of Colorado Boulder, which has educated nineteen astronauts. (Boulder was also the setting for the television sitcom “Mork & Mindy,” in which Robin Williams played an alien from the planet Ork.) Part of ness’s mission is to dream up experiments to be done on the moon. An informational poster at the entrance reads “Challenges of Measuring Cosmic Dawn with the 21-cm Sky-Averaged, Global Signal.” In the decades since Apollo 11, nasa has invented Earth-mapping satellites, launched the Hubble Space Telescope, collaborated on the International Space Station, and studied Mars. But none of these projects have generated the broad and childlike wonder of the moon.
Burns, who is sixty-six years old, remembers the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions—the Cold War-era efforts, beginning in the late fifties, that put men in space and finally landed them on the moon. He teaches a course on the history of space policy. “The U.S. had already lost the start of the space race,” he said, of the origins of Apollo. “The Soviet Union was first with a satellite in space. They were first with an astronaut in space.” Yuri Gagarin’s journey into outer space took place in April, 1961. President John F. Kennedy delivered his moon-shot speech the following month, and Congress eventually allocated 4.4 per cent of the national budget to nasa. “But, if you live by political motivations, you die by political motivations,” Burns said. “Apollo died. Nixon killed the program.” Only twelve people have walked on the moon, all of them between the summer of 1969 and Christmas, 1972. All the moonwalkers were men, all were American, all but one were Boy Scouts, and almost all listened to country-and-Western music on their way to the moon; they earned eight dollars a day, minus a fee for a bed on the spacecraft. Since the last moonwalk, humans have launched crafts that have orbited the moon, crashed probes into it, and taken increasingly detailed photos of it. But no one has been back.
The planetary scientist Bruce Hapke, who has a yellowish, opaque lunar mineral—hapkeite—named for him, said, “Almost every President since Nixon proposed going back to the moon.” (President Obama focussed instead on studying an asteroid near Earth and working toward the distant goal of sending astronauts to Mars.) “But the money was never allotted. Congress decided we couldn’t have guns and the moon at the same time.” The Department of Defense’s budget is now nearly seven hundred billion dollars, whereas nasa’s funding is $21.5 billion, or around half of one per cent of the national budget. The U.S. is still believed to spend more on space programs than the rest of the world combined. (China’s budget, however, is unknown.) Hapke said, “The trouble is, there was always some kind of emergency, always some war going on. Though that Cold War mentality also got us to the moon.”
“Where do you get your ideas?”
Hapke recalls being told by several scientists and nasa employees that, “when the moon landing was first conceived, it was a strictly political stunt: go to the moon, plant the flag, and come back to Earth.” The original design of the spacecraft allotted little to no room for scientific payloads. “When the scientific community got wind of this, they pointed out strongly to nasa all the fantastic science that could be done, and the whole tone of the project was changed,” he said. Hapke was then at Cornell, where he and his lab mates studied what the lunar soil might be like; the moon’s characteristic reflectivity helped them deduce that the surface must be a fine dust. For Hapke, the Apollo era remains the most exciting time in his scientific life. He also recalls “the widespread puzzlement in both Congress and the general populace after the first landing: ‘We beat the Russians. Why are we going back?’ ”
Burns said, “This time we need a more sustainable set of goals and reasons” for going to the moon. He meant a science mission, or a business mission, or both. “We don’t like to say we’re going back to the moon,” but forward, he added. “Our objectives are different. Our technology is different. Apollo had five kilobytes of ram. Your iPhone is millions of times more powerful.” Watching the footage of Neil Armstrong’s first steps, it takes a moment for one’s eyes to make sense of the low-resolution image, which could easily be overexposed film or a Robert Motherwell painting. “It’s amazing they made it.”
Burns told me that advances in engineering could turn the moon into a way station for launching rockets and satellites farther into the solar system, to Mars and beyond. (The weak gravity on the moon dramatically eases launches.) Lunar construction projects now look feasible. “Down the hall, we have a telerobotics lab,” Burns said. “You could print components of habitats, of telescopes. You use the lunar regolith”—the dust of the moon—“as your printing material. You could print the wrench you need to fix something.” Fifteen years ago, the moon was believed to be a dry rock; now we know that there’s water there. Both private industry and national agencies regard the mining of water and precious materials as something that’s not too far off. There’s space tourism, too, though the quiet consensus among scientists seems to be that the idea is goofy and impractical.
nasa would like to establish a permanent presence on the moon, using reusable rockets and landers. The agency is working on the largest, strongest, fastest—of course—rocket yet, but it plans to purchase other equipment, including rockets and landers, off the shelf, from commercial companies. Bob Jacobs, a spokesperson for nasa, told me, “Eighty-five per cent of nasa’s budget is for commercial contracts. We build what only we can build; the other services we look to purchase from approved venders.”
Burns likens this de-facto government support of commercial space exploration to the dawn of the airline industry: “In the nineteen-twenties, early airline companies survived only because the government paid them to deliver the mail.” It wasn’t until later, when ordinary people became aeronauts, that the airline industry became economically viable. “I think we’re looking at something similar with space exploration,” Burns said.
There are also more emotionally leveraged business models, like that of Celestis, a funeral-services company, which puts cremains into space, and has plans to take them to the moon. The Japanese beverage Pocari Sweat wants to be the first sports drink on the moon. Its manufacturer has booked a spot on a lunar lander developed by a Pittsburgh-based company, Astrobotic, which is scheduled to launch in 2021, and to land in the Lacus Mortis—the Lake of Death, which is actually a dry, flat area. Pocari Sweat employees have collected stories of children’s dreams from across Asia and etched them onto titanium plates. The plates will be put inside a capsule designed to look like a Pocari Sweat can, and will travel with some Pocari Sweat powder that will one day—so the plan goes—be mixed with moon water.
Even in fantasy, space ventures have always mingled idealistic and worldly motives. H. G. Wells published “The First Men in the Moon” in 1901. The novel’s narrator, Mr. Bedford, wants to make money. His collaborator, Mr. Cavor, dreams of knowledge. Together they go to the moon. When they encounter moon dwellers—“compact, bristling” creatures, “having much of the quality of a complicated insect”—Bedford wants to destroy them; Cavor wants to learn from them. Bedford finds gold, and embarks “upon an argument to show the infinite benefits our arrival would confer upon the moon,” involving himself “in a rather difficult proof that the arrival of Columbus was, on the whole, beneficial to America.” Cavor is indifferent to the gold—it’s a familiar mineral. Moon dwellers capture and chain Bedford and Cavor, then march them underground. Cavor assumes that there must be other, less brutal moon dwellers, as enlightened and knowledge-loving as he. In the end, Bedford makes it back to Earth. Cavor is presumed dead. But no one with a heart reads the novel and wants to be Bedford.
Burns grew up in Shirley, Massachusetts. Neither of his parents graduated from high school. From the age of five, he knew that he wanted to study the stars. When I asked him what he hopes to see on the moon, he became suddenly boyish: “I’d love to set up a low-frequency radio telescope on the far side of the moon, free from the interference of Earth signals. It could see to the beginnings of time. And the far side of the moon has craters there that were formed during the Late Heavy Bombardment, four billion years ago.” During the Late Heavy Bombardment, large numbers of meteors crashed into the inner solar system. The period coincides roughly—and perhaps not coincidentally—with the beginnings of life on Earth. Burns said, “Earth was also bombarded, but here that history has been erased or buried by weather, erosion. On the moon, it’s still right there on the surface. It’s a history book. I’d like to read that book.”
The night I met with Burns was the eve of a supermoon—when the moon is both full and as close to Earth as it gets. I walked over to the Sommers-Bausch Observatory, not far from Burns’s office; there was a bunny in the bushes, trying not to be noticed. Carla Johns, who operates the observatory’s telescopes, met me in the hallway, which is lit in red, to keep your eyes adapted to the dark. On the top floor, she pressed a button, and the roof noisily rolled back. There it was, with all its starry friends. Johns explained how the telescopes worked—they are essentially buckets of light. She said that children often shout when they see the moon so close.
Johns showed me a collection of small telescopes, and discussed the eighteenth-century French astronomer Charles Messier. “Back then, the way astronomers made money was finding comets and telling kings they had a comet to name after them,” she said. When Messier was eleven, his father died, and afterward he received no formal schooling. But he developed an exceptional gift for finding comets. “To find those comets, he documented everything he could see in the sky,” Johns said. “Once he was sure a sky object wasn’t a comet, it was of no interest to him. Some of that stuff he found turned out to be Andromeda, and the Crab Nebula.” She showed me a large telescope on a mount developed by John Dobson, a chemist by training, who worked briefly on the Manhattan Project, then resolved to spend the rest of his life as a monk. While living at a monastery in San Francisco, he would walk the shipyards, gathering old porthole glass to fashion into homemade telescopes, which he would share with others in sidewalk astronomy lectures. “The monks eventually asked him to leave,” Johns said.
Johns became a telescope operator relatively late in her professional life. She had worked in human resources, and enjoyed it, but at a difficult moment she found herself at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where her parents used to take her as a child. “I looked through the telescope and I began to cry,” she said. She had always loved science, but had chosen another career because of family and financial issues. “I said to myself, ‘I need to be involved with this.’ ”
Shortly before the turnoff for the town of Mojave, California, there were train cars along the right side of the road, painted old-fashioned black and standing still. On the left were hundreds of white wind turbines, spinning. Soon I came to a slightly weathered sign for the Mojave Air and Space Port—“Imagination Flies Here”—which features a picture of a young boy holding a toy plane. You’re allowed to launch rockets here; you’re allowed to fly objects beyond the atmosphere. A number of aerospace firms have offices at the port.
In November, 2018, nasa named nine companies to be part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program: if nasa wants to send something to the moon, these companies are approved to provide transportation. “FedEx to space,” I was told to think of it. “Or DHL.” Some of them are large and well known, like Lockheed Martin Space. Masten Space Systems has sixteen employees. It is based at the Air and Space Port, down the road from Virgin Galactic, in offices that resemble the extra building my elementary school put in the playground when enrollment exceeded capacity. When Masten won a nasa-funded prize—for vertical takeoff and precision landing in conditions simulating those of the moon—it had five employees. Its winning rocket, Xoie, looks like a slim, silvery water tower, only ninety inches tall—two stacked spheres on a tripod, with tanks of helium on the sides.
“Our focus is on reusable rockets,” Masten’s C.E.O., Sean Mahoney, told me. “We have a rocket that has flown two hundred and twenty-seven times. We want space to be affordable.” Masten plans to begin taking payloads to the moon in 2021: “Mostly science payloads, mostly nasa. Some commercial.” Among the items that nasa wants to send are a solar-power cell and a navigation device that the agency will test in lunar conditions.
Mahoney and I talked over a meal at the Voyager Restaurant, on the grounds of the spaceport. The Voyager looks like Mel’s Diner, from the TV show “Alice.” (A lot about lunar exploration reminded me of old television shows, especially “Bonanza.”) I had a grilled-cheese sandwich—spaceport food. Mahoney said, “There’s the PBS version of space, which is beautiful. And that is real. But, also, space—well, you’ve heard of the military-industrial complex? Space is an offshoot of that.” Something shiny and fleet was taking off in the distance, and the windows shook. Mahoney pointed out a tumbleweed blowing across the lot. “I’m a business guy by background, not a space guy, so I had to learn all of this,” he said. Mahoney believes that, because the space industry was a government-sanctioned monopoly for decades, there was no room for risk, or for competition; the fear of failure dominated. “Lockheed Martin and Boeing could charge exorbitant prices,” he said. “As a business person, when you see a fat margin—when you see a service that can be provided much more cheaply—you see value.”
We walked through strong winds to the hangars where Masten does its manufacturing. There were none of the vacuum chambers and clean white rooms that one associates with rocket science. Instead, there were trailer beds loaded with rocket parts for testing; there were purple-and-yellow long-sleeved T-shirts for launch days. There were tanks of helium, wrenches of every size. A young man wearing an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University sweatshirt and a welding mask was making an engine casing.
May 6, 2019 Rivka Galchen
Mahoney pointed out an engine without its casing, next to a small computer. “Some of these rocket models are literally operated by Raspberry Pi,” he said.
“That’s a very basic computer. A thirty-five-dollar computer. My point being, some of our parts we can buy at Home Depot.”
Masten was founded, in 2004, by David Masten, a former software-and-systems engineer, who remains the chief technical officer. “When I was a kid, I was going to be an astronaut,” Masten told me. “But, by the nineteen-eighties, space was getting boring—it wasn’t going anywhere—and there was this new thing called computers.” He became an I.T. consultant, and eventually worked at a series of startups. Throughout, Masten’s hobby remained rockets. “My thought was that, maybe, instead of doing the heavy analysis traditional of the aerospace industry, you do something more like I was used to,” he said. “You write some code, you compile it, you test it, and you iterate over and over in a tight, rapid fashion. I wanted to apply that method to rocketry.”
When a Masten rocket takes off, it has a delicate appearance. One of the newer ones, the Xodiac, looks like two golden balloons mounted on a metal skeleton. A kite tail of fire shoots out as the Xodiac launches straight up; at its apex, it has the ability to tilt and float down at an angle, as casually as a leaf. When Xodiac nears its designated landing spot, it abruptly slows, aligns, seems to hesitate, lands. It’s eerie—at that moment, the rocket seems sentient, intentional.
In one demonstration, the Xodiac performed a deceptively mundane task: it carried a “planetvac”—an invention intended to vacuum dust from the lunar surface—up and over one metre, deployed the vacuum, then scooted up and over another metre, hopping like a lunar janitor. The rockets are self-guided, unless overridden by a human; they are doing their own thing. “We believe computers can fly rockets better than people can,” Masten told me.
Many scientists see little need for humans on the moon, since robots would do the work more safely and inexpensively.
“Now, you will ask me what in the world we went up on the Moon for,” Qfwfq, the narrator of Italo Calvino’s “Cosmicomics,” says. “We went to collect the milk, with a big spoon and a bucket.” In our world, we are going for water. “Water is the oil of space,” George Sowers, a professor of space resources at the Colorado School of Mines, in Golden, told me. On the windowsill of Sowers’s office is a bumper sticker that reads “My other vehicle explored Pluto.” This is because his other vehicle did explore Pluto. Sowers served as the chief systems engineer of the rocket that, in 2006, launched nasa’s New Horizons spacecraft, which has flown by Pluto and continued on to Ultima Thule, a snowman-shaped, nineteen-mile-long rock that is the most distant object a spacecraft has ever reached. “I only got into space resources in the past two years,” he said. His laboratory at the School of Mines designs, among other things, small vehicles that could one day be controlled by artificial intelligence and used to mine lunar water.
“Do you have a moment to save our marriage?”
Water in space is valuable for drinking, of course, and as a source of oxygen. Sowers told me that it can also be transformed into rocket fuel. “The moon could be a gas station,” he said. That sounded terrible to me, but not to most of the scientists I spoke to. “It could be used to refuel rockets on the way to Mars”—a trip that would take about nine months—“or considerably beyond, at a fraction of the cost of launching them from Earth,” Sowers said. He explained that launching fuel from the moon rather than from Earth is like climbing the Empire State Building rather than Mt. Everest. Fuel accounts for around ninety per cent of the weight of a rocket, and every kilogram of weight brought from Earth to the moon costs roughly thirty-five thousand dollars; if you don’t have to bring fuel from Earth, it becomes much cheaper to send a probe to Jupiter.
Down the hall, in the Center for Space Resources’ laboratory, near buckets of lunar and asteroid simulants, was a small 3-D printer. Four graduate students were assembled there with Angel Abbud-Madrid, the center’s director. I asked them how difficult it would be to 3-D-print, say, an electrolyzer—the machine needed to separate the hydrogen and oxygen in water to make rocket fuel. They laughed.
“Here, let me show you something very fancy,” Hunter Williams, who was wearing sapphire-colored earrings, said. He poured some Morton sea salt into a plastic cup and added water. He stuck two silver thumbtacks through the bottom of the plastic cup, then held a battery up to them. Small bubbles began forming on the thumbtacks. The oxygen was separating from the hydrogen. You probably did this experiment in middle school, without knowing that you were doing rocket science. “The idea is for whatever goes up to the moon to be that simple,” Williams said. “To be that basic.”
“It would be like living off the land,” Ben Thrift, another graduate student, added. Thrift studied theatre as an undergraduate, and later ran a bakery, before earning a degree in engineering and enrolling in the space-resources program. “I decided to grow up and do something real,” he said.
“By ‘real,’ he means go to the moon,” Abbud-Madrid said.
“Transportation is not an end in itself,” Sowers told me. He is excited about solar power, which already runs many satellites in space, where there is no night, or clouds. He speculates that, if we had a base on the moon, we could use 3-D printers to make giant solar panels, as large as two kilometres, which could be launched into orbit; the resulting power could be beamed back to Earth via microwave radiation. “Space solar would be an unlimited, inexhaustible source of green energy,” Sowers said. “It requires no magic, and much of the technology is ready. I think we could do it by 2030, if we wanted to.” Another bumper sticker in Sowers’s office reads “Physicists have strange quarks.”
Other specialists have a different view of the resources available in space. Asteroids contain precious metals, such as platinum, palladium, and gold. A number of asteroid-mining companies have come and gone since 2015, when Neil deGrasse Tyson remarked that “the first trillionaire there’ll ever be is the person who mines asteroids for their natural resources.” But asteroid hunting is like whaling, in the length of its missions and the speculative nature of its success; the moon is only three days away, and its movements are extremely well known to us. nasa recently named ten companies as potential contractors for equipment to gather and analyze soil in space.
One of them was Honeybee Robotics. I visited its exploration-technology division, in Pasadena, which, from the outside, looks as dull as fro-yo, a collection of beige concrete buildings. Inside were lunar-rock samplers, the planetvac that was tested on a Masten rocket, some Nerf guns, and wine (which stands for “World Is Not Enough”), a steam-powered spacecraft designed to find water in lunar dirt (or on asteroids), convert it to energy, then hop to the next site, to pull up samples and more water for fuel.
Kris Zacny, a vice-president of Honeybee Robotics, was expecting his third child in the next few days. “So much has to do with where you’re born,” he said, explaining how he came to the field of space mining. Zacny is originally from Poland, the son of a musician father, who wanted him to be a musician as well. “What a disappointment I must have been,” Zacny said. “I spent my time thinking about the moon.” When he was seventeen, his family moved to South Africa. Zacny went to college on a scholarship from De Beers, and worked in the diamond mines while in school. “I graduated top of my class, with a degree in mechanical engineering, and next thing I knew I was twelve thousand feet underground,” he said. He spent two years in a coal mine, and a month in a gold mine that at the time was the deepest mine in the world. “I always dreamed of space, but it wasn’t an option for me,” he said.
In 2000, he landed a one-year position as a research assistant for a professor in Berkeley’s Materials Science and Engineering Department. “I knew it was too late for me to be a space guy, I accepted that. But I had the mining expertise. I said to the professor, ‘Don’t laugh at me, but I’d like to do extraterrestrial mining.’ ” What can be found on the moon remains for the most part unknown, though there is reasoned speculation. Honeybee is one of a growing number of companies that are developing standardized lunar rovers. Small countries with no national space agency, as well as private entities, could soon have their own robotic resource hunters roving around the moon, with little honeycomb emblems on their sides.
Buzz Aldrin had hoped, and briefly expected, that it would be he, and not Neil Armstrong, who would take the first human step on the moon. The astronaut Michael Collins, who manned the control module that orbited the moon while Armstrong and Aldrin walked below, has said of Aldrin that he “resents not being first on the moon more than he appreciates being second.” On the moon, Armstrong took photos of Aldrin posing, but Aldrin took none of Armstrong doing the same. One of the few photos that shows Neil Armstrong on the moon was taken by Armstrong himself—of his reflection in Aldrin’s helmet, as Aldrin salutes the flag. We are petty and misbehave on Earth; we will be petty and misbehave in space.
The guiding laws of space are defined by the Outer Space Treaty, from 1967, which has been signed by a hundred and eight countries, including all those with substantial space programs. “Laws that govern outer space are similar to the laws for the high seas,” Alain Berinstain, the vice-president of global development at the lunar-exploration company Moon Express, explained. “If you are two hundred miles away from the continental shelf, those waters don’t belong to anybody—they belong to everybody.” Moon Express describes the moon as the eighth continent. The company, which is based in Florida, is hoping to deliver its first lander to the moon in 2020; on board will be telescopes and the Celestis cremains. “If you look down at the waters from your ship and see fish, those fish belong to everybody,” Berinstain continued. “But, if you put a net down and pull those fish onto the deck of the ship, they’re yours. This could change, but right now that is how the U.S. is interpreting the Outer Space Treaty.”
Individual countries have their own interpretations of the treaty, and set up their own regulatory frameworks. Luxembourg promotes itself as “a unique legal, regulatory and business environment” for companies devoted to space resources, and is the first European country to pass legislation similar to that of the U.S., deeming resources collected in space to be ownable by private entities.
It’s not difficult to imagine moon development, like all development, proceeding less than peacefully, and less than equitably. (At least, unlike with colonization on Earth, there are no natives whose land we’re taking, or so we assume.) Philip Metzger, a planetary physicist at the University of Central Florida, said, “I’m really glad that all these countries, all these companies, are going to the moon. But there will be problems.” Any country can withdraw from the Outer Space Treaty by giving a year’s notice. “If any country feels it has a sufficient lead in space, that is a motivation to withdraw from the treaty,” he said.
So there is a tacit space race already. On the one hand, every national space agency applauded the success of the Chang’e-4 lander. The mission had science partnerships with Germany, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, and Sweden. nasa collaborates with many countries in space, sharing data, communications networks, and expertise. Russian rockets bring American astronauts to the International Space Station. When, in response to economic sanctions, the head of the Russian space agency said that maybe the American astronauts could get to the I.S.S. by trampoline, the comment was dismissed as posturing. Still, nasa has contracted with Boeing and SpaceX, Elon Musk’s rocket company, to begin taking astronauts to the I.S.S. this year—which means the U.S. will no longer rely on Russia for that. Russia and China say they will work together on a moon base. nasa used to collaborate with the China National Space Administration; in 2011, six months after members of nasa visited the C.N.S.A., Congress passed a bill that effectively prohibited collaboration.
It’s natural to want to leave the moon undisturbed; it’s also clear that humanity will disturb it. But do we need to live there? Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, envisages zoning the moon for heavy industry, and Earth for light industry and residential purposes. Bezos’s company Blue Origin is developing reusable rockets intended to bring humans reliably back and forth from space, with the long-term goal of creating manufacturing plants there, in zero gravity. Earth would be eased of its industrial burden, and the lower-gravity conditions would be beneficial for making certain goods, such as fibre-optic cables.
“There’s the argument that we’ve destroyed the Earth and now we’re going to destroy the moon. But I don’t see it that way,” Metzger said. “The resources in space are billions of times greater than on Earth. Space pretty much erases everything we do. If you crush an asteroid to dust, the solar wind will blow it away. We can’t really mess up the solar system.”
The most likely origin story for the moon is that it was formed four and a half billion years ago, after a Mars-size planet called Theia crashed into Earth. Theia broke into thousands of pieces, which orbited Earth. Slowly—or quickly, depending on your time scale—the shards coalesced and formed the moon we know today, the one that is drifting away from us, at a rate of four centimetres or so per year. If we had two moons, like Mars does, or sixty-two, like Saturn, we wouldn’t feel the same way about our moon.
Zou Xiaoduan, a scientist who worked on all phases of the Chang’e project, was born in 1983 in Guizhou province, in southwest China—“a very poor place back then,” she told me. As a child, she said, she “was stunned to learn that the moon was not a weird monster following me around.” She remembers hearing her family chatting about the Apollo missions. That men had been on the moon seemed unfathomable to her. She asked every adult to confirm it. She wanted to become an astronaut—a goal she attributes to there not being any Disney movies for her to watch. She began work on China’s lunar program in 2006. “I still recall the first lunar image from Chang’e-1 being shown to me,” she said, of the images sent home in 2007, during China’s first lunar orbital mission. “And the first time Chang’e-2 flew by an asteroid, 4179 Toutatis,” three years later. “No one had ever seen that asteroid.” Zou came to the U.S. in 2015, and now works for the Planetary Science Institute, in Tucson. She is part of a nasa mission studying the asteroid Bennu, which nasa describes as “an ancient relic of the solar system’s early days.” Like everyone else I spoke to who studies the moon, she loves her job. Of her work on the Chang’e missions, she said that every image has been “thrilling, every moment is a ‘wow.’ ” She continued, “I’m just so excited and super happy that I picked this career.”
The twelve men who walked on the moon, who saw Earth as a distant object—did they lose their illusions? A couple had alcohol problems, one co-founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and one became an evangelical preacher. One became a one-term Republican senator who has denied that humans are responsible for climate change; another became a painter, of the moon. Neil Armstrong was one of the few who had a mostly steady, unremarkable post-moonwalk life. He moved to a dairy farm and became a professor at the University of Cincinnati. Nearly a decade after his trip to the moon, he wrote a poem called “My Vacation”:
Nine Summers ago, I went for a visit.
To see if the moon was green cheese.
When we arrived, people on earth asked: “Is it?”
We answered: “No cheese, no bees, no trees.”
There were rocks and hills and a remarkable view
Of the beautiful earth that you know.
It’s a nice place to visit, and I’m certain that you
Will enjoy it when you get to go. ♦
This article appears in the print edition of the May 6, 2019, issue, with the headline “The Eighth Continent.”